One of the ongoing challenges in the NHS is the shortage of skilled personnel; over 124,000 positions were vacant in April 2023. To provide consistent quality care, the NHS must attract and retain the right people with the right skills, while ensuring that all staff have equitable access to learning opportunities: an effective learning and development (L&D) strategy is essential for employee engagement and learning needs. Healthcare organisations that prioritise their employees and patients tend to perform better resulting in improved staff retention, quality of care, and long-term financial benefits.

In healthcare, we’ve seen a transformational journey from equal opportunity through equality to ensuring equity. We know that if you fold in equality, diversity and inclusion, you are still leaving some people short of the learning they need. Equality does not give you the outcome you necessarily need from a people point of view – equity has the ability to address this. To be successful, careful attention needs to be paid to how you deliver and deploy learning. In a supportive organisation, delivery and deployment of learning should not only include access to various types of training, but also to reflection time, the opportunity to exchange information and experiences with colleagues, as well as regular appraisals.

Protecting learning time

Any learning requires dedicated time. However, when resources in the NHS are stretched like never before, there’s a risk of a lack of protected learning time (PLT) for employees to access and complete education or learning programmes which could help them to upskill or reskill. A report by the General Medical Council (GMC) in 2021 - The state of medical education and practice in the UK - found that 20% of speciality and specialists (SAS)/locally-employed (LE) doctors and doctors in training felt the lack of progression opportunities and training would be their greatest concern for the upcoming year.

This is precisely why it’s important for the NHS to protect and prioritise learning time. Having the right skills gives employees confidence and reduces stress; this is a crucial component of the wellbeing agenda and has a direct impact on the most important people of all – the patients. Consequently, the GMC’s, Caring for doctors, caring for patients report in 2019 also suggested that competence - the need for doctors to experience effectiveness and deliver valued outcomes, such as high quality care - is a core need for their wellbeing.

Digital caters to diverse learning styles

Even with protected learning time, it’s important to understand that different learning styles require different provisions. Many people do not have access to learning outside of work, cannot devote their weekends to extra study or are unaware of the training opportunities available to them. Organisational leaders should foster a learning culture, while learners should have the ability to hold leaders accountable for their own personal growth.

Diversifying learning is a way for employers to actively invest in their people, develop talent and empower them to achieve their potential. By using digital learning, people are able to learn and digest information at their own pace. Whereas for employers, digital can also serve as a future asset - becoming cheaper per learner over time - making it both fiscally responsible and sustainable.

Choosing the right training path

The key to effective training is deploying the right learning products, from traditional paid-for learning to funded and partially-funded programmes, such as apprenticeships. These are available in the NHS from level 2 (the equivalent of GCSEs) up to level 6 and 7 (the equivalent of a bachelor's or master's degree) in subjects ranging from business administration and human resources to pharmacy support.

Even though resources are squeezed across the board, learning can take place on any budget. Choosing the right learning partner within these constraints is critical to ensuring that money is being spent wisely and producing maximum results in the most sustainable way.

By utilising internal platforms such as FutureNHS, training goals, outcomes and opportunities can be shared across the organisation, ensuring equal access to learning. For learning to be successful, you need an environment where it can be created, maintained, and monitored. This means creating a space where people can share ideas and learn from each other, ensuring equal access to learning, protecting learning time, and providing regular feedback. Creation of this learning and sharing space can be difficult in an ecosystem as huge and under pressure as the NHS, but this is also why connection is crucial. Connection unlocks latent potential and, ultimately, increases equity.

Enabling wider on-demand access

Leadership in organisations should promote a culture of learning, but learners should also be able to hold leaders accountable for their own development. Learning solutions enable healthcare organisations to develop skills as part of their coordinated response to strategic challenges. Since 2015, we’ve been creating and managing bespoke learning programmes for public sector and healthcare employees. As a result of our award-winning programmes, we’re seeing an enormous amount of interest in facilitation and coaching, whether for developing new teams or helping individuals’ to sense-check their decision-making and clarify their next steps.

Our work with the NHS encompasses not only role-based skills, but also people-centered skills, such as creativity, emotional intelligence, and decision-making, that are essential to thriving in a dynamic environment. Together with NHS England, we’re ensuring that employees can access on-demand digitally-led learning products for their growth and professional development. As a result of the funding granted by health strategic bodies since April 2021, we’ve been able to secure learning solutions for over 10,000 NHS staff in non-clinical training areas. In response to the pandemic, there’s been a greater focus on people-centered skills, professional development, and well-being. We’re proud to support NHS England by expanding the rollout of Care Navigation to an additional 7,800 learners as part of the Primary Care Recovery Plan through our partner supply chain.

This article was first published in the Health Service Journal

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